Looking good for Red Lake walleyes
The recovering walleye population in Upper and Lower Red lakes continues to thrive, and state and tribal fisheries managers are monitoring the harvest as anglers and tribal commercial fishermen begin to keep more and larger fish.
That's by design, officials say, and surveys to date show the population can sustain additional fishing pressure that remains below harvest quotas.
"Everything looks really good for right now, and for the foreseeable future, we don't see any problems at all," said Pat Brown, tribal fisheries biologist for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
In state waters, for the first time since walleye fishing on Upper Red Lake reopened in May 2006, the Department of Natural Resources has relaxed the protected slot limit during the winter season. Anglers this winter can keep walleyes up to 20 inches and one longer than 26 inches in their four-fish limit.
Previously, the DNR required anglers to release walleyes from 17 inches to 26 inches in the wintertime.
According to Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, the decision to relax the winter slot limit results from a walleye harvest that has been below state quotas the past couple of years. This past year, for example, anglers kept an estimated 72,000 pounds of walleyes between the winter and summer seasons.
That's less than half the annual quota of 168,000 pounds for the state's 48,000-acre share of Upper Red Lake. According to Barnard, surveys this fall showed record-high walleye abundance in Upper Red, with fish from 13 year-classes represented in the population. Netting surveys in state waters produced more than 60 walleyes per lift, he said.
The recommended annual harvest quota in both state and tribal waters is 3½ pounds per acre, Barnard said.
According to Barnard, low water levels this past summer hampered boater access and contributed to less fishing pressure. The winter trend, he says, shows anglers spending about the same number of hours on the ice but making fewer individual trips, as more people switch to "sleeper" ice houses that allow them to stay on the lake for days at a time.
"They're accumulating a lot of hours but not harvesting a lot more fish per hour," Barnard said.
As a result, he said, fisheries managers decided the 20- to 26-inch protected slot in place from mid-June through the end of the open water season could carry into this winter. He said the 17- to 26-inch protected slot will return with the mid-May walleye opener through the first month of the season, when walleyes are most vulnerable to being caught.
In tribal waters, Brown said the harvest for the year that began in late November 2011 was 730,000 pounds, which is approaching the annual harvest quota of 829,500 pounds. He said the three netting crews employed to provide walleyes for the Red Lake Fisheries plant contributed to the bulk of the harvest this past year.
As in state waters, low lake levels kept many hook-and-line anglers from accessing the reservation side of the lake. Brown said the fish plant employs from 80 to 100 people and has fresh walleyes available at least nine months of the year, in addition to frozen fish year-round.
"It's working great," he said. "We wanted to harvest some fish on the reservation but the other big thing is the population is still staying up there, at least for now."
The Red Lake Technical Committee, which includes state and tribal interests and meets twice a year, met Dec. 4 in Bemidji. According to the DNR's Barnard, a key topic of discussion was the increased harvest of mature, spawning-stock walleyes that will result from the relaxed slot limit.
Walleyes measuring 25 inches and larger are starting to become more abundant, Barnard said, something that wasn't being seen early in the recovery, when fish larger than 22 inches were scarce.
In recent years, he said, growth rates have improved.
"It's something we have to keep an eye on both on band waters and our waters," Barnard said. "Both jurisdictions are harvesting mature fish, but the population is in shape where it can stand that and benefit.
"We're seeing a lot more stability in this population."
Red Lake covers 260,000 acres between the two basins. All of Lower Red Lake's 152,000 acres and 60,000 acres of Upper Red Lake lie within reservation boundaries; the state manages 48,000 acres on the east side of Upper Red Lake.
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